By: Maya Beninteso, Peak Associate and Research Assistant in the Close Relationships Lab

“The love of your life.” “The one.” “Your person.” These expressions reference an assumption and expectation that has been set by society — monogamy. Despite monogamy only being pervasive for the last 1,000 years, this idea that you must find one person, and one person only, to meet all of your romantic and/or sexual needs is untrue. You’re not confined to monogamy; other relationship structures exist, such as consensual non-monogamy (CNM). CNM relationships include all relationships where all partners receive explicit consent to engage in relationships with others. There is a clear lack of understanding surrounding CNM relationships, which has contributed to its stigmatization. This lack of understanding is what Dr. Rebecca Cobb, director of SFU Close Relationships Lab, intends to address through her latest research endeavour. SFU Close Relationships Lab studies the change and development of romantic relationships and how “factors such as psychological health, attachment security, and communication” affect relationships and sexual satisfaction.

Cobb’s inspiration for the study derived from several experiences throughout her career, the most notable being through her Transition to Marriage Study that included following newly-wed couples through their first two years of marriage. Cobb and her research team assumed the couples were all monogamous, however that didn’t appear to be the case. During the study, Cobb inquired about their sexual relationship with their husband, to which the participant responded, “It’s going pretty well, but mostly that’s because of my boyfriend.” This incited reflection on the “assumptions we make about relationships in society.” In the following studies, Cobb began asking participants whether they had “exclusivity agreements” or if they were in CNM relationships. Cobb found “up to 15% or 18% of people in [these] studies were non-monogamous.” This finding is consistent with an article in The Journal of Sex Research that suggested up to 20% of individuals have been in an open relationship.

Cobb sought out to explore the experiences of those in CNM relationships and the intricacies with which these relationships are associated. Although there were a variety of motives, a main theme regarding reasons for engaging in CNM was the “idea of living one’s true authentic self” and “a sense of ‘this is who I am.’” Other reasons included: making them happy, providing them with a sense of autonomy, giving them a sense of interconnectedness, and being an authentic way to live their life.

Cobb found the study was “far more diverse . . .  than any other study” she has done. For sexual orientation, she found 27% identified as pansexual, 22.5% as bisexual, 20% as heterosexual, 13% as queer, and the remaining few as unlabeled, demisexual, or gay.

Despite a growing population of individuals engaging in CNM relationships, there are many incorrect, preconceived notions as to why individuals engage in CNM relationships: Cobb noted the most important one surrounds sex. “People are not becoming involved in CNM relationships simply to have more sex, ”she explained. Other misconceptions about CNM relationships include: engaging in CNM due to an unfulfilling primary relationship and a lack of commitment. These misconceptions have been disproven because typically, CNM relationships originate from a happy and secure primary relationship, and there needs to be a certain level of commitment from all parties involved.

Cobb explored discussions surrounding boundaries for individuals in CNM relationships. In her experience, while there is “consistent attention to boundaries” and the renegotiation of boundaries, there is rarely a time when individuals explicitly discuss them beforehand. Cobb noted these conversations occur before and throughout the relationship. The time or method by which these conversations take place is “different depending on how [they] got into a CNM relationship.” Regardless of the differing times at which these conversations take place, Cobb noted that “the spirit of clear, open, transparent communication is dominant.” A way by which communication differs between some CNM relationships is whether or not partners adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, or if they wish to know the details of their time spent with other partners. There’s an expectation for partners to be respectful, thoughtful, “and caring about each other.”  There isn’t just one way to love or engage in relationships — there are many.